By Mark Rickert, Baltimore Recruiting BattalionMarch 5, 2012
BALTIMORE -- Several years ago while stationed in Iraq, faced with the threat of enemy attacks, scorching heat, and the stress of the day-to-day grind, Staff Sgt. Dante Steel learned the art of salsa dancing.
It seems almost ironic, given the contradictory natures of dance and combat. Yet, at the time, having an opportunity to take a salsa class under the tutelage of a fellow Soldier provided Steel with a much needed outlet for stress and a means for personal development.
Now, as an Army recruiter for the Baltimore Battalion, Steel has found a way to integrate salsa into his current mission of building an all-volunteer Army, and students are dancing to a whole new beat.
The idea came to Steel during one of his routine visits to his area high schools. This time, he heard music in the hallways and discovered a dance class at its source. Afterwards, he approached the school's faculty about offering salsa lessons. The faculty liked the idea and allowed him to take the reins for a few class periods.
According to Kate Ortendahl, a dance instructor at Sussex Central High School in Georgetown, Del., her students were hesitant at first with the idea of getting dance lessons from an Army sergeant. Steel, however, quickly won them over.
"It was good to have a Soldier here," said Ortendahl. "It's not at all what you'd expect in a dance class. But Sgt. Steel did a really nice job. He was at ease, and the students were all laughing and having fun. They seemed to listen to him more than they listen to me!"
Loose, confident, and professional, Steel creates a positive classroom environment and, as a result, the class learned quickly. In just a short while, the morning dance class had the basic moves down. They even felt confident enough to demand a dance-off.
Steel challenged them further by asking them to dance to a song with a rapid tempo. Needless to say, the students were both entertained and exhausted by the end of class.
"He knows his stuff," said Jessica Hudson, a dance instructor at Sussex Central, who teaches mostly ballet, tap and jazz, and who appreciated the diversity that Steel brought to the classroom.
"I loved letting the kids get a different style of dance than what they're usually exposed to," Hudson said. "I have no background in Latin dance, and they're actually getting it from an expert. I think a lot of them raise their eyes and say, 'He gets to do this in the Army?'"
Both instructors pointed out that having an Army Soldier teach a dance class enables them to break through certain stereotypes and gender limitations.
"This gives kids a chance to see that dancing is not just for a certain stereotype," said Hudson. "Anybody can dance -- your father, brother, mom, dad . . . even somebody in the military. It doesn't matter."
"Sometimes students relate differently to a male," said Ortendahl. "And it's cool to have a different perspective on dance to show that dancing can be masculine, too.
"It helped motivate some of the guys and even some of the girls who don't always participate. I felt their participation level was up."
Steel confesses to a deep admiration for salsa's elegance and beauty, and he enjoys teaching it to students in hopes that they will continue practicing long after he's left the school.
As a sergeant concerned about physical fitness with today's generation, he likes knowing that his instructions encourage a healthy lifestyle.
"Is dancing salsa an avenue to losing weight and burning calories while having fun? Absolutely," said Steel. "This is where Zumba and Jazzercise both stem from."
Ortendahl points out that the majority of her students won't exercise much outside of her classroom, so this training is important to them for both short-term and long-term goals.
"This class might be the only time they're physically active all day or all week," said Ortendahl. "Sometimes they go off and continue to learn dance outside of school. I think some will gravitate towards it. Hopefully, they will continue to learn as they become adults."
For Steel, teaching a class proves more effective than setting up table displays in the cafeteria. Having face-to-face time with students gives him a chance to mentor, coach and even identify people with an interest in the military.
"Not every student has a positive role model who enjoys spending time with them," said Steel, "and they will look to you for guidance or just want to talk to you. In turn, they might join the Army.
"You never know, but if you're not out there, doing these things, getting involved in your schools, you'll never have that opportunity to find out."